‘Ten Commandments’ of race and genetics – New Scientist

Here’s an interesting little article from New Scientist, my favourite porno.

A group from Stanford Uni in California, comprising people from such disciplines as genetics, philosophy, history & psychology, has released their own ‘Ten Commandments’ as a guide for scientists. At the risk of posting the whole damn article (it’s really very short apart from the list of recommendations), here they are:

1. All races are created equal

No genetic data has ever shown that one group of people is inherently superior to another. Equality is a moral value central to the idea of human rights; discrimination against any group should never be tolerated.

2. An Argentinian and an Australian are more likely to have differences in their DNA than two Argentinians

Groups of human beings have moved around throughout history. Those that share the same culture, language or location tend to have different genetic variations than other groups. This is becoming less true, though, as populations mix.

I like these first two – I’ve always thought such an arbitrarily-decided (and accidental) thing as nationality was no good indicator for the inherent decency and worth of a person. Another conclusion I came to long ago is that peoples’ culture and upbringing is a much more effective determinator of who they are than their genetic profile. The very fact that we all bleed the same colour, breathe the same air and can interbreed with anyone from anywhere, regardless of any external physical difference, led me to believe that national and cultural differences really are only skin-deep. For a simple example, take an orphaned African baby to France and he’ll more or less grow up to be a “Frenchman”. Where you are – more importantly, where you parents are and how they raise you – makes you who you are.

3. A person’s history isn’t written only in his or her genes

Everyone’s genetic material carries a useful, though incomplete, map of
his or her ancestors’ travels. Studies looking for health disparities between individuals shouldn’t rely solely on this identity. They should also consider a
person’s cultural background.

4: Members of the same race may have different underlying genetics

Social definitions of what it means to be “Hispanic” or “black” have changed over time. People who claim the same race may actually have very different genetic histories.

Also makes a lot of sense to me! I call myself “white” because I have German, Scottish, Welsh and Norman ancestors. But who knows the exact lineage of any one of those people? Humans have been criss-crossing the planet for a million years – I could be related to anyone from anywhere.

5. Both nature and nurture play important parts in our behaviors and abilities

Trying to use genetic differences between groups to show differences in intelligence, violent behaviors or the ability to throw a ball is an oversimplification of much more complicated interactions between genetics and environment.

Again – where you are and who raised you and how makes a lot more difference than your blueprint. Two cars can be externally identical in every way, but what if one owner treats his car like his baby and the other owner thrashes it mercilessly? You can’t tell until you compare them and investigate their history.

6. Researchers should be careful about using racial groups when designing experiments

When scientists decide to divide their subjects into groups based on ethnicity, they need to be clear about why and how these divisions are made to avoid contributing to stereotypes.

7. Medicine should focus on the individual, not the race

Although some diseases are connected to genetic markers, these markers tend to be found in many different racial groups. Overemphasising genetics may promote racist views or focus attention on a group when it should be on the individual.

8. The study of genetics requires cooperation between experts in many different fields

Human disease is the product of a mishmash of factors: genetic, cultural, economic and behavioral. Interdisciplinary efforts that involve the social sciences are more likely to be successful.

9. Oversimplified science feeds popular misconceptions

Policy makers should be careful about simplifying and politicising scientific data. When presenting science to the public, the media should address the limitations of race-related research.

10. Genetics 101 should include a history of racism

Any high school or college student learning about genetics should also learn about misguided attempts in the past to use science to justify racism. New textbooks should be developed for this purpose.

Nice! I quite like it and it all seems to makes good sense. Of course, something like this is likely to put a bee in the bonnets of any racist, genetic determinist or any religious zealot who believes, in a galactically-sized act of arrogance and narcissism, that their god has picked him and his fellow tribe members out of the rest of the billions of humans for special treatment. That’s a given though – religious people are the most easily offended in the world. But, mostly, I hope this annoys and offends racists. Anyone who can be offended merely by the existence of someone else who might look or sound or act different – and whose accident of birth & upbringing was just as out of their personal control as that of the racist himself – deserves to be offended by anything and everything the world can throw at him. If he can’t accept that he must share this one life-giving planet we have with billions of other people who might not be anything like him, he deserves to be tormented every time he sees someone “different” on the street going about their lives.

The list makes a passive yet obvious point against “racial profiling” – a term which has come up once or twice since the 9/11 attacks. Obviously, the unspoken consensus was that this would unfairly target people of “Islamic” or “Arabic” appearance – two terms which are more or less meaningless when you consider the differences in nationality and culture which encompass the sizeable and widespread Muslim world, not to mention the fact that some people are frequently confused for Arabs or Muslims when in fact they may be Sikhs, Hindus, Ba’Hai, Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish or any other faith and from anywhere from the Middle East, SE or Central Asia, India, Pakistan, Eastern Europe, Spain, Africa, Australia, Wales, Denmark or they may indeed be Arab Muslims with no reason for anyone to be targeting them for anything. The whole concept of racial profiling is intellectually bankrupt, a pointless waste of time and is wide open to abuse & plain ignorance. After Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murragh building in Oklahoma; after the Branch Davidian siege at Waco; after the Unabomber was caught; after Columbine, noone was talking about profiling White Christians…jeez, you can just imagine the conservative uproar. I have a little grin just thinking about it, actually 🙂

edit: I just realised that the first “commandment” says “All races are created equal”. I know this is meant to reference the world’s most famous Top Ten list from the bible but that word – “created” – kinda sticks out a little, especially as it comes from a multidisciplinary panel of (mostly) scientists. Not really a big deal in my opinion, but I’ve noticed it’s sticking in the craws of a few of my peers around the atheosphere – though noone’s ever really maintained that science necessarily has to equal atheism (though, if you take science as a logical extension of reason and rationality, in my view there’s not a lot of choice unless you’re an expert ).

Anyway, I’d much prefer that it said “All apparent races have developed equally” or just “all humans are deserving of equal treatment” or just “all races are equal” but hey, I guess if you’re going for a biblical reference, why not just go the whole hog. Whatever the result, the basic impression I get from this list is that anyone seeking to label a particular race as inferior, superior or more less deserving of particular treatment or respect really has no basis in reality and science on which to do so. Not that they ever did though. Racists, as ever, can always justify their prejudices somehow – even if their bigotry isn’t religiously based, they seem to share many traits with religious fundies anyway, especially the ability to look disagreeable facts in the face and deny they’re even there.

In hindsight I’m not sure what the target audience for this list was, as any scientist worth his salt already agrees with it. I’m even sort of thinking this was more a PC exercise than anything else, but hey – it was nice to have something to post about on a Friday morning 🙂

Have a good weekend.